In a lot of ways, homelessness is such a complex issue that it’s hard to think about, much less solve.
Who qualifies as chronically unhoused? How many people like that are out there? What policy, or policies, might help one person get a roof over his or her head, or significantly reduce the broader problem for lots of unhoused people? None of the answers is easy.
But in one way – at least in one way expressed loudly this week by a man sleeping in an aging Mustang parked near a gas station in Costa Mesa – being unhoused boils down to a single word.
“Money,” he said.
“If I had more (money), I wouldn’t be sleeping in my car,” he added as he moved some toiletries (a bag with soap and shampoo; a toothbrush) into his back seat.
“I’m homeless because I don’t have enough money not to be.”
The 52-year-old man – contacted around sunrise on Tuesday, Jan. 23, by volunteers participating in the Everyone Counts, Point in Time survey, a once-every-two-years census of the unhoused that’s held in communities around the country – doesn’t want to disclose his name because of the stigma that comes with sleeping on the streets. (“Do you know how hard it is to get hired if somebody knows you don’t have a place to live?” he asked. “Not easy.”)
The man, a Marine Corps veteran, said he’s slept in his car for brief periods a few times over the past five or six years. But he doesn’t define himself as “homeless.” During that same period, he said, he’s attended school, worked as a computer installer and been a parent to his now adult children.
“I’m just stuck for this moment,” he said.
He also doesn’t fit many of the (fading) stereotypes about the unhoused. He’s not addicted. He’s not obviously mentally ill. He’s not fresh out of prison or chronically unemployed.
He doesn’t prefer sleeping in his car or otherwise outdoors.
Instead, he says, he’s “working, but still poor.” The pay he earns in his current full-time job (at a convenience store near a gas station) is low enough that he can only afford the cheapest, shared room in the cheapest apartment in high-priced Orange County. Such rooms, in such apartments, aren’t common. And if that’s what you can afford, and you wind up between dwellings – as the guy in the Mustang did in mid-January, following a verbal dispute with his former landlord – the next stop can be the streets.
“I have money to stay in a motel a couple nights,” the man said during a phone interview two days after he answered the survey.
“But if I did that I wouldn’t have anything for first-and-last (month’s rent). And I’ll need that if I can find anything I might be able to afford.”
While the details of the man’s story are unique, the basic spiral isn’t.
“One negative event can push some people out,” said Michael Shepherd, associate director of United to End Homelessness, an initiative of the Orange County United Way that focuses on housing people who are unhoused.
Shepherd and others who worked this year’s Point in Time count noted that social ills, such as drug or alcohol addiction, or mental illness, are common among people of all incomes. But people with less money have less breathing room when their troubles spiral, meaning the same episode of addiction or mental illness that might frustrate or endanger someone with a middle-class income can also push a convenience store worker into using his car as a home.
That precariousness isn’t lost on people struggling to find permanent homes.
In a 2023 report from the UC San Francisco Benioff Homelessness and Housing Initiative, based on questionnaires and interviews with about 3,200 unhoused people in California, 7 in 10 unhoused people said they would be able to find and keep stable housing if they were given a rental stipend of as little as $400 a month.
“I know $400 would help right now,” said the man who slept in his car.
“People will make the best (housing) decisions with the options they have at that time,” said Shepherd. “And money can expand those options or, if you don’t have it, limit them.”
But Shepherd, like others working to help the unhoused, suggested money is just one tool to help people who, local Mustang dweller notwithstanding, often are struggling with a broad range of problems.
The survey from UC San Francisco found several trends about the unhoused that, anecdotally, appeared to be mirrored on this year’s Point in Time count:
• Homeless people aren’t young. The median age of people who answered the UCSF survey was 47. Last year, local housing workers noted that the fastest-growing group of people seeking assistance from homelessness agencies in Southern California are people age 60 and older.
• Homeless people aren’t visitors. Nine out of 10 people who answered the UCSF survey were from California. Though it’s too early to say if that’ll be the case in this year’s Point in Time survey, past surveys have found most people sleeping in shelters or streets in Orange County are originally from this region.
• Homeless people often are victims of violence. Nearly 3 out of 4 (72%) of respondents in the UCSF survey said they’d experienced physical violence at some point in their lives and nearly 1 in 4 (24%) said they’d experienced sexual violence. Federal reports on homelessness have found similar patterns.
For all the new data that’s coming in about the unhoused – in everything from the UCSF report to surveys conducted this week by Point in Time volunteers – there’s a surprising lack of information about one big question:
Is homelessness becoming more common?
Public surveys on the question suggest people overwhelmingly believe it is. A poll conducted last year by UC Irvine’s School of Social Ecology found that people in Orange County view homelessness as the county’s single most pressing problem. And a poll conducted last year by Quinnipiac, looking specifically at California voters, found that homelessness has grown to the point that it’s now the single biggest problem in the state.
But is it? Are more people homeless today than, say, five years ago? Data on that isn’t conclusive.
The Point in Time numbers for this year won’t be available for a couple months, when the 2024 total will include people who slept outdoors or in their cars on Jan. 22 as well as the number of people who spent that same night in shelter beds.
But Point in Time numbers from 2019 and 2022 (the count was delayed a year because of the COVID-19 pandemic) show the numbers of unhoused in Orange County fell by nearly 17%, from 6,860 to 5,718. Shepherd and others who work with the unhoused or in providing food assistance noted that the pandemic actually decreased some of the statistical evidence of poverty, because people were given cash stipends and eviction moratoriums were in place.
“Some Point in Time surveys taken last year, in some communities, show there was a big rise in the numbers,” Shepherd said.
Federal numbers show a slight uptick. A 2022 report from the office of Housing and Urban Development said that year’s Point in Time count, nationally, found 582,500 people around the county were unhoused, a jump of just 2,000 people from two years earlier.
On one hand, such numbers might not matter; it’s tough to say what number of homeless people, if any, is acceptable.
But Point in Time numbers are used by federal officials to determine how much money goes to any community to combat homelessness.
And other indicators about homelessness – including the number of people who die each year in Orange County with no known address – suggest the ranks of the unhoused are growing.
Shepherd, among others, said the inconclusive recent data on homelessness make this month’s Point in Time numbers particularly important.
“We have some counts from 2023 that show the numbers were rising. And we believe we know that the problem isn’t getting better. So that’s why we’re waiting to see what the ’24 count will be,” he said.
“Also, we’re trying to work with different data sets to see if there are different ways of counting.